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House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen?

House of the Dragon explores the Dance of the Dragons, so here's the history of Rhaenyra Targaryen, the woman at the center of the war that tore Westeros apart.

Who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? With House of the Dragon, HBO gave fans an excuse to go back to Westeros with its exciting new Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon.

Set long before the events of Game of Thrones (none of your favorite Game of Thrones characters have even been born yet); the show explores a split in the Targaryen family tree known as the Dance of Dragons, which nearly tore the realm apart.

On one side, we have Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen, and on the other, King Aegon II Targaryen. But who was Rhaenyra Targaryen? Well, we’ve donned our maester’s chain to bring you a full history of Westeros’s Black Queen.  Warning: spoilers ahead for the best TV series of 2023.

Who is Rhaenyra Targaryen?

Rhaenyra Targaryen is the eldest child of King Viserys Targaryen and Queen Aemma Arryn, and is the true heir to the Iron Throne. In the House of the Dragon TV series, she’s played by Milly Alcock as a teenager and Emma D’Arcy as an adult.  

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen?: Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen

Rhaenyra Targaryen’s early life explained

Rhaenyra Targaryen was the only child of King Viserys and Queen Aemma Arryn. Precocious and bold even as a child, she quickly became the apple of her father’s eye, and he took her as his cupbearer.

From this position, Rhaenyra watched her father meet with the lords and ladies of the Seven Kingdoms, learning the subtleties of politics and the difficulties of ruling. When Rhaenyra was just seven years old, she bonded with the dragon Syrax, becoming a dragonrider.

Rhaenyra was also close to her uncle Daemon Targaryen who would spoil his niece and tell her stories of his roguish adventures on the dragon Caraxes.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen?: Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen

Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon

When we meet Rhaenyra in House of the Dragon, she’s a young woman living a carefree life in her father’s court. The princess spends her days flying on Syrax, reading in the Godswood, and playing with her best friend, Alicent Hightower. Her life dramatically changes, however, when her mother dies in childbirth.

Devastated by his loss, Viserys realizes his all-consuming drive for a male heir is what killed his beloved Aemma when Rhaenyra was already the perfect successor. Viserys makes the decision to tell Rhaenyra The Song of Ice and Fire prophecy and names her the next Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

Over the next few years, Rhaenyra diligently serves her father, helping him put down Daemon’s petulant rebellion, selecting Ser Criston Cole for the Kingsguard, and attending small council meetings. Yet when Viserys marries Alicent Hightower, a wedge starts to grow between the old friends.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? : Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen

While they remain cordial, it’s clear Rhaenyra disapproves of the marriage, and when Alicent starts to give Viserys sons, Aegon and Aemond, the divide only grows. Many in the court, primarily the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, want Viserys to name his firstborn son Aegon heir over Rhaenyra, and she grows suspicious that her friend is seeking to disinherit her.

The final straw in the friendship comes after Daemon returns to court and takes Rhaenyra into a brothel in Flea Bottom. While Rhaenyra and Daemon don’t consummate their growing attraction, they come close, and one of Otto’s spies spots them. The Hand of the King immediately goes to Viserys with this news, who refuses to believe it and removes Otto from office after Rhaenyra demands it.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? : Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen

Alicent confronts Rhaenyra in the aftermath, but the princess is clear she didn’t sleep with Daemon that night, which is technically true, although she leaves out that she did have sex with Criston Cole. When an angry Viserys arranges Rhaenyra’s marriage to Laenor Velaryon, Alicent learns the truth and starts to despise the princess for having her father deposed.

Rhaenyra and Laenor are eventually married, to the fury of Ser Cristom, with Alicent boldly wearing Hightower green (giving the Greens their name) to their wedding feast, although neither is faithful to the other. Rhaenyra has three bastard children with Ser Harwin Strong: Princes Jacaerys, Lucerys, and Joffrey. While Rhaenyra and Laenor keep up the pretense that the children are legitimate, their bastardy is an open secret at court.

Indeed, Alicent and her children take great pleasure in teasing Rhaenyra and the boys over their ‘strong’ looks. A sort of cold war begins between the Queen and the Princess, with each trying to build a power base in King’s Landing. Alicent ultimately wins after Larys Strong has his father, Lyonel, and brother, Harwin, murdered.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen

Following this, Viserys reinstates Otto as Hand of the King, and Rhaenyra leaves King’s Landing with her family, moving to Dragonstone. The feuding family is later forced to reunite at Laena Velaryon’s funeral, during which Aemond Targaryen claims the dragon Vhagar. This insult leads to Lucerys cutting out Aemond’s eye, further dividing the family.

It was during Laena’s funeral that Daemon and Rhaenyra consummated their weird, weird, love. The pair then hatched a plan to get rid of Laenor Valyrian once and for all, allowing them to marry each other finally.

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The new couple spends another six years away from court, during which Viserys’ health deteriorates, and the Hightowers cement their grasp on power. When Vaemond Velaryon questions the legitimacy of Jacaerys, Lucerys, and Joffrey, it seems like Rhaenyra will have her reputation ruined. Still, Viserys manages to find the strength to save his daughter one last time.

The same evening, Rhaenyra and Alicent’s families dine together, and it seems as though the two warring factions may finally make peace. Unfortunately, this is all undermined when Rhaenyra leaves the castle, and Viserys dies. Otto moves to crown Aegon II king, and Alicent allows him to as long as they don’t kill Rhaenyra.

When Rhaenyra finds out that Viserys is dead and she’s been ousted from the throne, the war is effectively on. All this comes to a head when she sends Lucerys to Storm’s End with a message of alliance and he’s taunted, chased, and eventually killed by Aemond’s dragon Vhagar. Season 1 eventually ends with Rhaenyra hearing of her son’s death, and looking into the camera with a look of rage on her face.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen

Rhaenyra Targaryen in The Dance of the Dragons explained

We’re leaving the comfort of the TV series now and into the hinterland of the books, so the following may not come to pass, and we’ll have to wait for the House of the Dragon season 2 release date to find out exactly what happens to Rhaenyra, but this is her book history.

In the books, Rhaenyra is described as “the Realm’s Delight,” and is said to be beautiful and bright. When she reaches her twenties, she’s described as being “stout and thick of waist”. Although this description isn’t carried over to the on-screen version of the princess, the show’s iteration does depict many of the Targaryen’s physical traits and coloring.

When Rhaenyra found out that Aegon had been crowned, she was apoplectic with rage at those who’d stolen her throne. She had herself crowned using her father’s crown and declared war on the Hightowers and the Greens.

Rhaenyra and Daemon immediately sought the loyalty of the great houses, sending diplomats to all Seven Kingdoms. Lucerys was sent to Storm’s End to appeal to the House Baratheon, but Aemond was also there, and the two fought. Against the might of Vhagar, Lucerys, and his smaller dragon Arrax were no match, and Rhaenyra’s second son was killed.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen

Around half the great houses, including the Starks and the Arryns, declared for Rhaenyra, and war broke out primarily in the Riverlands. The campaign was a brutal one, and Rhaenyra frequently took to the front on the back of Syrax.

After a year and a half of fighting, Rhaenyra managed to capture the capital, King’s Landing, and finally take the throne. The common folk initially celebrated her return, but the tide quickly turned as Rhaenyra became more and more paranoid in the hunt for her half-brothers. Even worse, she had to levy great taxes against the people in order to replenish the treasury’s drained coffers.

All of this led to Rhaenyra being massively unpopular, and when she was accused of killing Helaena Targaryen, an uprising broke out. The commoners stormed the Dragon Pit and killed several of the Targaryen dragons. Rhaenyra was forced to flee for her life with her son Aegon.

House of the Dragon: who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen

The death of Rhaenyra Targaryen explained

Desperate, Rhaenyra sold her father’s crown for a ship for passage on a ship sailing to Bravos, but she was betrayed by the knight Alfred Broome, whose men slew her Queensguard before taking her to Dragonstone, where Aegon II ruled.

Cruel and driven partially mad by the pain of his injuries, Aegon cruelly had Rhaenyra fed to his dragon Sunfyre and forced her son Aegon to watch the horror show.  After her death, Aegon declared that Rhaenyra should never be referred to as a queen and that she had always only been a princess.

Rhaenyra Targaryen’s legacy explained

Despite her death, Rhaenyra’s legacy lived on, and she was survived by her two sons, Viserys and Aegon. While Aegon and the Greens would technically win the Dance of Dragons, it was the Blacks who ultimately triumphed, with both Aegon and Viseryts taking the throne eventually.

Unfortunately, the scars of conflict left both men ill-equipped to deal with the pressure of ruling the Seven Kingdoms, and within a few generations, the Targaryen family would ultimately lose control of the Iron Throne.

If you love House of the Dragon, check out our list of the best House of the Dragon characters or our guide to breaking down the House of the Dragon cast.

That’s not all, though. We’ve also got an article looking at what’s next for the Game of Thrones cast and a hypothetical Game of Thrones season 9, as well as separate articles on the Game of Thrones Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, and even the deadly Night King.

Our sister site, Wargamer, also has a guide to the best Game of Thrones board games if you want to play this deadly political game for yourself.